After more than two decades spending every holiday season playing jazz versions of classic Christmas songs, bassist/bandleader Rob Swanson hasn’t grown tired of the gig. The same doesn’t hold true for every aspect of the most wonderful time of the year.
“I love the music,” Swanson says. “I could deal without the cold. I like to surf. I gotta figure out a way to do this in Costa Rica.”
For now, Swanson will continue to brave the inclement weather to bring the music of beloved Christmas specials to Philly-area audiences, just as he’s done every year since 1995, when he founded the Cartoon Christmas Trio. On Friday, the band will perform at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, welcoming operatic baritone Grant Youngblood to growl Dr. Seuss’ tongue-twisting epithets on “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” as well as a children’s chorus under the direction of jazz singer M’Balia Singley.
The core of the Cartoon Christmas Trio’s repertoire is, naturally, Vince Guaraldi’s memorable score for A Charlie Brown Christmas. Since the special first aired in December 1965, it has introduced generations of viewers to jazz via Guaraldi’s elegant, bittersweet themes.
“The pairing of Charles Schulz and Vince Guaraldi was so unique and special,” Swanson muses. “They hooked up and found such a fine balance of melancholy and passion and celebration. I think that’s one of the reasons it’s lasted for so long and why people still have a connection to it, no matter how old they are.”
As a musician who plays jazz in the region throughout the year, Swanson recognizes how special Guaraldi’s music is for audiences who couldn’t name a John Coltrane tune or spell Thelonious Monk. “Everybody knows all these tunes start to finish because most of us grew up with them,” he says. “Unless you’re a musician or have been following jazz for a long time, most of the standard jazz repertoire is foreign to people. But when you pair it with Charlie Brown, all of a sudden jazz becomes more accessible.”
That was the case for Swanson, who heard Guaraldi’s music as a young kid growing up in Wilmington, Del. The son of two classical musicians, he heard the European masters at home, while his own tastes would run to The Who, Led Zeppelin, and the Sex Pistols. A close neighbor was a jazz fanatic, though, and would pass albums from his collection to Swanson, introducing him to many of jazz’s most revered artists — Guaraldi included.
Swanson was recounting that story to the owner of a Delaware bar where he played a steady gig in the mid-1990s, who suggested that the bassist try playing the music for Christmas season drinkers. Swanson put a trio together and never found himself short of gigs after Thanksgiving again. Pianist Jeff Knoettner has been a member of the trio since day one, while drummer Jimmy Coleman joined six years ago after coming off the road with John Legend’s touring band.
In the decades since, the trio’s annual dates moved from barrooms to concert halls, and supplemented the Guaraldi material with songs from other Christmas specials of the era: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas. No matter how many times they run through these songs, Swanson insists that they never get tired of them — which could come as a surprise to anyone suffering through the hundredth version of “The 12 Days of Christmas” piped over the speakers at the King of Prussia Mall.
“We’ve probably played this music at least 1,500 times, but it’s still different,” Swanson says. “The great thing about jazz is you state the theme that everybody knows, so we make that bond, and then there’s the moment that improvisation and spontaneity takes over. We’ve never played these tunes the same way twice, so every time is special.”